Word to the wise: putting the constitutional cart before the horse is a mistake

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Series Details Vol.7, No.46, 13.12.01, p28
Publication Date 13/12/2001
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Date: 13/12/01

By Simon Coss

Anyone who's followed EU politics for any length of time will tell you the same thing: words matter.

A word or phrase that may seem totally innocuous to politicians in one country can cause apoplexy in colleagues in another member state.

Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of linguistic land-mine is the word 'federalism'. In 14 EU countries it means a political system in which power is devolved down to national or regional governments that have a large degree of freedom to act as they wish.

But among certain members of the UK's political classes it means precisely the opposite. For someone such as former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for example, a federal EU would be a Stalinist superstate bent on eradicating harmless English pastimes like massacring foxes with packs of dogs and sending pre-teen children out at 6am to deliver newspapers.

In France, the word 'flexibility' has the political elite tearing its hair out. During the Amsterdam Treaty negotiations most governments argued more flexibility in EU labour markets would help reduce unemployment and boost productivity.

But the French were having none of it. For them flexibility meant replacing hard-won workers' rights with a labour market based on poorly paid 'McJobs' and endemic professional insecurity.

French feathers were eventually smoothed by a pledge to work towards more 'supple' labour markets, which everyone except Paris agreed meant the same thing anyway.

The latest word to enter this lexicon of trip-wired terms is 'constitution'.

The debate over whether the EU should have a binding constitution will become increasingly heated as the 2004 EU reform summit approaches. But as Christian Democrat MEP Hans-Gert Pöttering explained to a recent meeting of the European Policy Centre (EPC) the 'c-word' itself is already causing problems.

"Many people are concerned about the use of the term constitution. The Spanish in particular are totally against it," he said.

He suggested that the wording was less important than the concept and - ever the EU politician - said it should be possible to draw up a "constitution without calling it a constitution".

Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think-tank with offices across the Union approaches the constitution question from a different angle. In its Blueprint for

a Debate 2001-2004 it says before politicians get bogged down in arguments about what the future constitution should be called, they should find out if there is a demand for it.

"Do Europe's citizens want a constitution for the EU? How great is the demand for an unchallengeable document that sets out how the Union is to be governed?" the group asks.

This tendency for the Union's political elite to forge ahead with their pet projects is also central to the Trans European Policy Studies Association's analysis of the EU reform debate.

"The reaction of the Irish citizens indicates the EU's major problem of building legitimate links between the multi-level playing actors and the citizens," it said, referring to Ireland's recent referendum rejecting the December 2000 Nice Treaty in its report on Constitutionalism and the Future of the European Union.

The trans-EU European Movement is more dogmatic in its approach to the constitution question. In a recent joint-statement, the group's French and German chapters called for a constitution clearly labelled as such.

"It is time to lay the foundations of this fundamental text that will show European citizens why they should live together and give full legitimacy to the role and the powers of the European institution," they said in a statement echoing the call made by their respective governments at last month's Franco-German summit in Nantes.

The debate over a possible EU constitution has only just begun in earnest and is likely to become increasingly heated over the next two years.

This is one subject on which we definitely haven't heard the last word.

Feature on the debate over whether the EU should have a binding constitution.

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